In a strongly worded letter to the Board of Supervisors, the City of Newport Beach has charged the county with violating state environmental regulations by approving a $150-million John Wayne Airport expansion plan last Tuesday before obtaining a judge's permission.
The letter, signed by Newport Beach City Atty. Robert H. Burnham and delivered to board members following their vote Tuesday, also accuses county officials of failing to adequately consider the environmental impact of a new British-made jetliner before approving the expansion plan.
However, after meeting for more than two hours behind closed doors Friday evening, the Newport Beach City Council announced that it had not yet decided whether to seek a court order aimed at stopping the county's plan.
Instead, Mayor Phil Maurer said the council has decided to continue weighing its options because the city has until April 4 to file a lawsuit under state law.
He said the options include litigation, further discussions with the county about possibly limiting further the number of flights at John Wayne and awaiting further actions by the county.
The county's airport expansion plan allows commercial jet flights to increase from the current 41 departures per day to 55 as of April 1. It also grants access to America West, Continental and Jet America airlines and provides for construction of new commercial passenger and general aviation terminals by 1991. Flights of noise-regulated aircraft would increase to 73 per day after completion of the new commercial airline terminal.
The new facility would handle up to 10.24 million passengers annually by the year 2005 compared to 2.8 million now. About 4.1 million passengers per year are anticipated once flights increase to 55 per day. The existing terminal was designed to accommodate just 400,000 commercial passengers per year.
In his letter, Burnham criticized the county's failure to limit the number of flights by the new, British-built BAe-146 jetliner.
In recent tests at John Wayne, the plane produced noise levels below those mandated by the county. Airport officials said the BAe-146 was about as noisy as a twin-engine private aircraft or a turbocharged single-engine plane, which are unrestricted and which accounted for 90,000 takeoffs and landings last year.
To meet the challenge posed by the BAe-146, county supervisors voted to require a 90-day performance evaluation and environmental review before any airline can obtain an exemption from county regulations for the aircraft instead of limiting the number of flights.
So far, PSA is the only airline to test the BAe-146 at John Wayne.
"From a policy standpoint, introduction of the BAe-146 requires the development of measures to control the number of operations of that aircraft," Burnham argued in his letter. "From a legal standpoint, introduction of the BAe-146 requires the completion of additional environmental review prior to any increase in flights or any other action to implement the (Airport) Master Plan.
"Nearly everyone agrees that unlimited numbers of BAe-146 flights are unacceptable for a multitude of reasons, including the serious adverse noise, air quality and traffic impacts that would be produced by such operations."
Burnham's letter charged that the county might be using the BAe-146 to get around the limits on commercial departures, which resulted from Newport Beach's successful lawsuit to block a 1981 airport expansion plan.
The letter also alleged that the Board of Supervisors violated a new state regulation by adopting the new Airport Master Plan without first persuading a judge that the required environmental impact report is adequate.
Ruling Limited Departures
The new statute went into effect on Jan. 1 and involves cases where prior environmental impact reports on the same or a similar project have failed court challenges. In 1982, Superior Court Judge Bruce Sumner, now retired, declared that the county's 1981 environmental impact report had failed to adequately analyze alternatives to the airport expansion plan proposed by the county at that time. It was Sumner's ruling that has limited departures to 41 per day at John Wayne.
However, county supervisors approved the new expansion plan last Tuesday in a belief that the accompanying environmental documentation will withstand court challenges this time around.
The county's lawyers declined comment Friday when asked about Burnham's letter.
First Evidence of Displeasure
"I haven't seen the letter yet, so I can't comment on it," said special airport counsel Michael Gatzke of Carlsbad.
"I don't want to inflame the situation," said Deputy County Counsel Dan Didier.
Burnham's letter was the first indication that Newport Beach objects to unlimited flights by the BAe-146.
County officials said they were a little surprised because city officials never raised the issue during a private negotiating session last Monday or during the public Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, when the expansion plan was given final approval. Indeed, no representative from Newport Beach addressed the board until after the vote was taken.